Well over a billion smartphones were sold across the world in 2015. One of the great things about the fierce competition in the smartphone market is that prices are tumbling down. The average selling price declined to less than $300 last year, and it will fall further, according to the IDC. That makes buying a smartphone outright, without being locked into a two-year contract, a realistic possibility for everyone under the sun.
The tricky part is finding the right phone for you, but don’t worry, because we’re here to help. We’ve been testing out the best budget smartphones and this is our short list.
Why should you buy this: It’s a true flagship killer with high-end specs, great processing power, and a sharp camera — all wrapped up in a sleek metal package.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a great Android phone at a relatively low price
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the ZTE Axon 7:
Nothing about the ZTE Axon 7 suggests a budget price. This is a classy piece of tech, sporting an attractive all-metal design with prominent dual speaker grilles flanking a gorgeous 5.5-inch AMOLED screen. It looks and feels expensive and it can compete with some of the best Android phones on performance.
Things don’t get any less impressive when you pop the hood, because there’s a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB RAM and a whopping 64GB internal storage inside. There’s also a more expensive 128GB version with a whopping 6GB of RAM, and you get a MicroSD card slot for further expansion in both models.
You won’t be disappointed by the camera, either. It features a 21-megapixel camera sensor with electronic and optical image stabilization. The front-facing camera is rated at 8-megapixels. Both take great pictures and offer manual settings. A 3,140mAh battery ensures that the Axon 7 will get through an average day with juice to spare.
Then there’s the front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos technology for unrivaled smartphone sound. If you’re looking for the compromise, you’ll be hard pressed to find it. Even ZTE’s MiFavor UI is mercifully close to stock Android and the manufacturer is promising timely Android updates.
One thing to watch out for is that the ZTE Axon 7 is not officially supported on Verizon or Sprint. It is technically capable of working with their networks, and some people report limited success, but your mileage may vary. It’s also slippery, it’s not water resistant, and there’s no wireless charging support, but we’re nitpicking because this is an unparalleled phone for the money.
The best cheap iPhone
Why should you buy this: It’s the best 4-inch smartphone ever made with many of the same specs as the iPhone 6S and a strong camera.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants an iPhone, but has limited cash or just likes ‘em small
How much will it cost: $400+
Why we picked the iPhone SE:
This is the obvious choice for bargain-seeking Apple fans who have their hearts set on an iPhone. It takes most of the features of the iPhone 6S and packs them into the body of an iPhone 5S. If you feel like modern smartphones are getting too big, then the iPhone SE will suit you perfectly.
It has the same A9 processor as the 6S, backed by 2GB of RAM. On paper that doesn’t sound impressive, but in terms of real world performance, it’s lightning fast and beats many more expensive phones. There’s a great 12-megapixel main camera that takes sharp, crisp, natural-looking photos, and has support for Live Photos. You also get Touch ID, Hey Siri, and NFC for Apple Pay.
The 4-inch screen matches the 6S for pixel density, so it’s sharp and clear. The iOS platform is very easy to use and you get access to an excellent library of slick apps and games. The battery is only rated at 1,642mAh, but since it’s powering a smaller display, it results in above average stamina.
Inevitably, there are some disappointments here. The front-facing camera is just 1.2-megapixels, so this is not the phone for selfie fans. The basic version only has 16GB of storage, which isn’t enough, and it will cost you an extra $50 to jump up to 64GB. There’s also no 3D Touch. Despite the compromises, this is the most reasonably priced iPhone you can buy right now.
The second best $400 Android phone
Why should you buy this: Flagship killer specs, impressive processing power, and a sharp camera make the OnePlus 3 a real steal
Who’s it for: Android fans looking for value without compromise
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the OnePlus 3:
OnePlus has always strived to offer flagship specs at mid-range prices, and the OnePlus 3 is the best phone it has ever produced. The metal body looks and feels expensive, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor is backed by 6GB of RAM for fast and smooth performance, and the 16-megapixel camera takes great photos.
The 5.5-inch, full HD AMOLED screen is bright and vibrant. The feature-packed main camera is bolstered by an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, which is great for selfies. OxygenOS is a light touch on top of Android and you get a decent 64GB of internal storage.
This is a dual-SIM device, which is handy for anyone with two numbers to maintain. It boasts a fingerprint sensor, and there’s a USB Type-C port which supports fast charging of the 3,000mAh battery. There’s also support for NFC, which was missing from previous OnePlus phones.
All that’s missing here is a MicroSD card slot, which is a shame. OnePlus also has a bad reputation with OS updates. However, this would easily be our top pick if ZTE hadn’t released the Axon 7, and it’s definitely worth checking out as a possible alternative.
The best $250 phone
Why should you buy this: It’s a great, cheap Android phone with solid specs and a decent camera that won’t let you down.
Who’s it for: Pure Android fans on a budget who prize substance over style
How much will it cost: $250
Why we picked the Moto G4 Plus:
Despite Lenovo’s takeover of the Moto brand, the budget Moto G line is still a leading light at the budget end of the Android market. This is the best phone you can buy for $250 right now.
The G4 Plus boasts a 5.5-inch full HD screen, a zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, and 4GB of RAM. The basic model only has 16GB of storage, but there is a MicroSD card slot for expansion. You’ll also find a 16-megapixel camera, which bests the competition in this price bracket, and a respectable 5-megapixel selfie camera. A 3,000mAh battery provides enough power to see you through a full day and there’s a fingerprint sensor.
One of the best things about the G4 Plus is the complete absence of bloatware. It almost feels like stock Android, and, as one of the first smartphones beyond Google’s line to get the newest version of Android, you’ll also benefit from the latest features and security updates.
There’s no NFC support here, which is going to disappoint you if you’re keen to use your phone for contactless payments, but nothing else is missing, which makes this a great all-rounder. You could get the G4 for $50 less, but you’ll lose half the RAM, the fingerprint sensor, and you’ll have to make do with a poorer camera. The G4 is not a bad budget option at all, but the G4 Plus is worth the extra $50 if you have it.
The best phone for less than $200
Why should you buy this: It’s amazing to get a phone this good for less than $200. Its 6-inch Full HD screen is great for phablet fans.
Who’s it for: Anyone with a hard budget who likes big phones
How much will it cost: $100-$180
Why we picked the ZTE ZMax Pro:
You’ll be amazed at what you can get for a single Benjamin here. ZTE is offering an unbeatable bargain with the ZMax Pro and we’re not sure how it can turn a profit with these specs at this price.
The ZTE ZMax Pro follows the big screen trend with a 6-inch, full HD display. It has a respectable Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor inside with 2GB of RAM. There’s 32GB of storage, with support for MicroSD card expansion. You also get a 13-megapixel main camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. The phone is ably powered by a 3,400mAh battery that easily lasts a day between charges.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the ZMax Pro also features a nice curved design, a USB Type-C port with support for fast charging, a fingerprint sensor, and a minimal UI that’s close to stock Android.
The ZTE ZMax Pro is only available through T-Mobile and MetroPCS right now. The only major omission here is NFC. Camera performance is also mediocre, but for $100 it seems churlish to complain, because you are not going to find anything better. It’s $180 at T-Mobile, but that’s nothing to sneeze at, either.
How we test
We’re fanatical about our phones here at Digital Trends. Every phone we test serves as our main device for at least a week, often longer, so we can get a real feel for what life would be like living with it. We read on them, game on them, shoot video and photos, navigate, organize, and occasionally even make calls. Every facet is explored, every manufacturer claim is challenged, and we’re careful to take the intended audience and price tag into account when judgment time comes.
Debates on the best phones in different categories are a regular occurrence and no one on the mobile team is shy about sharing their opinion. When we find flaws, we tell like it is. Ultimately, we’ll never recommend any phone that we wouldn’t be happy using ourselves.
Is now a good time to buy?
This is a thorny question for technology in general, because there’s always something better just around the corner. There are signs that the smartphone spec war has been slowing down recently, but what you can get for your money at the budget end of the market continues to change quite rapidly.
Much depends on your current situation. If you’re content with the phone you have, then keep it, because the longer you wait, the better your choices will be. You can also potentially save up more money while you wait to see what’s released.
In terms of upcoming events, we aren’t expecting a lot of new releases before MWC in Barcelona next year, which is held at the end of February. For Apple fans, there probably won’t be any new phone releases until September, 2017, but you never know – the iPhone SE’s March, 2016 release was a surprise.
We think it will probably be late spring or summer before we see new smartphones forcing their way onto this list. If you can’t wait that long, and you see something you like, this is a good time to pull the trigger.